Laura Ling and Euna Lee, television reporters for the San Francisco-based Current TV, were detained March 17 along North Korea’s border with China. They were working on stories about North Korean refugees fleeing to China.
Their closed-door, four-day trial, held in North Korea’s highest court, culminated in a conviction for “committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry,” according to North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, and a harsher sentence than many observers anticipated.
“They meted out a verdict somewhat harsher than I had expected,” Lee Woo-young, a North Korea specialist at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, told the New York Times. “It means that North Korea doesn’t want to release them without Washington paying a price. It sends a signal to Washington to become more active in negotiations.”
Washington responded to the sentencing by vowing to secure the journalists’ release. “We are deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities, and we are engaged through all possible channels to secure their release,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in the statement.
At the White House on Monday, deputy spokesman William Burton said in a statement: “The president is deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities, and we are engaged through all possible channels to secure their release.”
Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea visited the two journalists prior to trial on behalf of the United States, which has no diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.
The convictions come amid a series of provocative actions this spring from North Korea. The reclusive Communist country, which is in the throes of a succession process, as its longtime leader Kim Jong-Il prepares to hand the reins to his youngest son, launched a long-range missile in May, conducted an apparent underground nuclear test in May, and renounced the truce that ended the Korean War.
The U.N. Security Council is currently debating whether to impose fresh sanctions on North Korea for exploding the nuclear device last month. North Korea’s state-run newspaper has printed that the country’s “response would be to consider sanctions against us as a declaration of war and answer it with extreme hard-line measures.”
The Obama administration also signaled Sunday that it was looking into ways to intercept, potentially with China’s help, North Korean air and sea shipments suspected of carrying weapons or nuclear technology. The administration is also examining whether to add North Korea back to the list of states that sponsor terrorism.
“I don’t think there should be an assumption that we will simply continue down a path in which North Korea is constantly destabilizing the region and we just react in the same ways,” President Barack Obama told reporters while traveling in France this weekend for ceremonies marking the anniversary of the World War II D-Day invasion.
“We are not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation,” the president said, according to the New York Times.
The circumstances under which Ling, a 32-year-old Chinese-American, and Lee, a 36-year-old Korean-American, were detained are still murky, with some reports alleging that they were captured after straying across the North Korean border or that they were on Chinese soil and detained by North Korean guards who objected to being filmed. Their cameraman and a local guide escaped.
North Korean labor camps are notoriously harsh, bleak places. Although no details on the camps or their inhabitants are provided by the state, the study of satellite photographs by foreign intelligence agencies and human-rights groups have shed some light on the conditions. The U.S. State Department estimates that 150,000-200,000 prisoners are detained in the camps, located in remote mountainous areas of central and northern North Korea. Former inmates who have escaped the country report brutal treatment, including beatings and rape, and that prisoners are kept in a state of semi-starvation while being forced to work from early morning to late at night.